Covering conception complexities

Octomom Nadya Suleman and her entourage of nannies caravan the octuplets and the twins to a park in Los Angeles

My husband and I have been blessed with two wonderful children and we hope to have more. Sometimes I reflect on how grateful I am that we were able to conceive these children without any trouble. I have more than a few friends that have been unable to procreate and I know it has been terribly difficult for them. As difficult and expensive as much reproductive assistance is, some people have even greater difficulty because they have religious objections to some of the most popular methods. One of the little-discussed issues with in vitro fertilization, for instance, is that it usually produces many more embryos than will ever be implanted. Assisted reproduction is a huge issue, with tons of difficult details. Considering how many great human interest stories surround the topic, I'm surprised at how little coverage we read of the issue. (Here was a great in-depth Tennessean report on the issue that we looked at last year.)

I was elated to read St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend's piece on recent Catholic news about infertility treatment. The bishops approved a new document called "Life-giving Love in an Age of Technology" at their fall meeting in Baltimore.

The story has been published widely, appearing in the Washington Post.

Here's how he begins, framing -- with ease -- the issue in terms of the Christian understanding of reproduction:

"Be fruitful," God instructed Adam and Eve, "and multiply."

They were the first words God spoke to his creation, and his creation has heeded them ever since. But over the years, God's creation has become sophisticated enough to rewrite the original rules of being fruitful, and most of the new rules don't sit well with leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

Nice. He goes on to explain that Philadelphia's Cardinal Justin Rigali believes there is great confusion among Catholics regarding the morality of reproductive technologies. Many bishops, we learn, hold masses for infertile couples:

On one hand, bishops need to educate Catholics about the church's moral stance on assisted reproductive technologies. On the other, they also need to minister to Catholic couples suffering through the heartache of infertility, many of whom believe their church seems intent on contributing to that heartache by putting up roadblocks to medically assisted pregnancy.

The story gets into the nitty gritty of what is acceptable and what is not. Basically, any technology that supports conjugal acts and resulting conception is fine -- anything else is not. We also learn why the Catholic Church teaches that way:

For instance, church teaching is compatible with tests and treatment for low sperm count or problems with ovulation, but not with artificial insemination by anyone other than the husband. Even using the husband's sperm is forbidden if it is obtained in any way other than normal intercourse.

"Children have a right to be conceived by the act that expresses and embodies their parents' self-giving love," according to the U.S. bishops. "Morally responsible medicine can assist this act but should never substitute for it."

The story even gets into a bit of politics. Noting that American Catholics have a reputation for ignoring the church on various teachings, Townsend quotes a few scholars vociferously disagreeing with the bishops' position. But he also gets a response. He gives each side sufficient space that I can't even quote here and do everyone justice. Here's a sample:

"American Catholics are no more going to listen to this than they listen to the church about birth control," said Glenn McGee, a scholar at the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City.

Barbara Collura, executive director of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, a nonprofit patient advocacy organization in Virginia, said the bishops would have a hard time trying to explain to infertile Catholics "that the medical technology is there but not available to them; that their dream of a biological child is gone."

But Catholic bioethicists say the point of the church's position is to protect the dignity of children by honoring the church's conception of natural law.

Some pretty salacious claims are made -- one guy says that the Vatican is "bringing the hammer down" and looking to excommunicate Catholics whose children are created outside of church-approved means. Townsend also gets quotes from others saying the bishops are simply trying to provide Catholics a frame of reference by which to understand what is right and wrong. The doctrine is explained, and argued over by various sides, throughout the piece. I don't think either side in this particular debate would feel that their views weren't accurately expressed -- even if the church would probably like more space to explain its teaching.

You don't have to be Catholic, Christian or even religious to struggle with the ethical questions surrounding assisted reproduction. But religion clearly plays a role for many and this story does a nice job of looking at some of the tensions in one church body.

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